McKillop, Alan D.: Goethe and literary criticism

Goethe and literary criticism

goethe1GOETHE is the supreme example in modern literature of the genius whose works are so many aspects of a rich and dramatic personal career. It is sometimes said that Boswell’s Life is Johnson’s greatest work, Lockhart’s Life Scott’s greatest work, but Goethe was his own Boswell, his own Lockhart, and how much more besides! His oft-quoted remark that his works were “fragments of a great confession” points us to the biography behind the poetry, and the abundant evidence we have for every phase of his life has enabled scholars to place each fragment in its context. The present discussion is concerned, necessarily in a very hasty way, with the literary part of this context, with the poet’s attitude toward the literature which meant most to him. But we cannot separate the literature from the life. Occasionally, indeed, a great spirit keeps to his books. Such a situation is implied in Landor’s epigram :

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,-
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Here the fire of life burns on the hearth of a library, and the aged poet celebrates his withdrawal from a world in which many things are irrelevant to his view both of “nature” and of “art.” But an even greater man would find many things worth his strife, and would wrestle with this world for its blessing as Jacob wrestled with the angel. The figure is Goethe’s; he uses it when he tells how he won insight from Herder at Strasburg. He does not counsel a retirement to the merely contemplative life, but catches the notes of an angelic chorus: “Whosoever is unflagging in his striving forever, him we can redeem.” Our present task is not to study Goethe’s “sources,” survey his reading, or appraise his scholarship. The poet does not read for the sake of mere imitation or erudition. Rather he appropriates books; he seizes on them and assimilates them. They are wrought into a program of self-culture, but not into a set curriculum. When Faust sets about translating the Gospel of John into his beloved German, he pauses at the first sentence, “In the beginning was the Zogos.” Surely, he argues, this cannot mean, “In the beginning was the word.” The word is not to be rated so highly. Nor is it accurate to say, “In the beginning was the thought.” Is it thought which works and creates? Rather it is power, or better still, the deed itself. Faust then writes with confidence, “In the beginning was the deed.” Surely it is not forcing matters to read into this passage Goethe’s conviction that the heritage of European culture is living and dynamic.

What from your fathers’ heritage is lent,
Earn it anew, to really possess it !

This eagerness to put great literature to work is one of the most striking aspects of Goethe’s quest for culture. T o American ears the word unfortunately suggests something snobbish and superior. To Goethe it meant more than we can say, but perhaps it would not be far wrong to describe it as meaning a way of life which would give full play to his magnificent powers. Steadily, even ruthlessly, Goethe strove toward this end. He was moreover the first and the greatest genius to work under the conditions imposed by the modern world. He lived through three generations of increasing complexity and confusion; he saw the break-up of the old ideals of Reason which had ruled the Enlightenment, and he saw too the dubious triumph of Romanticism.

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